Monday, March 31, 2008

Wright is Wrong... Except When He's Right

The question came up in a column by Ralph Reiland in today's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, as follows: "... it probably doesn't help young people in the black community when they're told that their country hates them, that the U.S. government gave them drugs and AIDS, and that jail and genocide are the officially-sanctioned plan for them." Further on, he says, "Does Obama think it improves matters when black leaders tell blacks that they're poor, sick, jailed, or hooked on drugs because of a government plot?"

Yeah, OK, let's actually take a look at some of these points, rather than just blowing them off as the rantings of some "radical". In fact, let's admit that, if we want to claim that there is at least of grain of truth behind every "stereotype" or prejudice held by white people, then there _might_ just be a grain of truth -- let's say "a basis for the perception" -- behind certain ideas held by black people. Of course, it's always possible that we're talking about a "meme" - defined as a "unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that gets transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another." A meme does not have to have a basis in fact -- it can be a wild idea that someone dreamed up, but which appeals to people because of their perceptions of the world, or their experiences in it. For example, the notion that the U.S. government "invented" AIDS for the purpose of exterminating blacks -- in both Africa and the U.S. -- is, arguably, a meme. It's a fanciful notion that is, nonetheless, widely believed for what might be called political/cultural reasons. But even so, someone looking for "evidence" is going to focus on the high incidence of AIDS in black prostitutes (as if that were otherwise unexpected) and its allegedly high incidence in Africa (passing up, for now, the temptation to discuss the known gross over-diagnosis of "African AIDS"). But what about Wright's other points? Are they memes too? Or just the workings of his feverish imagination? Or might there be something more to it? Let's have a look, shall we?

* Does the U.S. hate blacks? Well, we _claim_ to be giving them every break in the world, affirmative action and massive funding of remedial and social and "inner city" programs being offered as evidence. But we've also used them as stalking horses for "urban renewal", the main effects of which were to drive the working-class white ethnic groups out of American cities and to install blacks as a permanent, politically-malleable underclass. We've demolished organic, culturally-rich black neighborhoods and replaced them with sterile high-rises, which instantly become hotbeds of violence and drug abuse. We offer affirmative action programs and preferences, then whisper about the ones who take advantage of them that, well, they "only got as far as they got" because of all the help we gave them. And, yes, we pass laws against certain behaviors, like the use of certain kinds of drugs or even certain _forms_ of the same kind of drug -- laws which have wildly disproportionate "adverse impact", and yet no one ever raises their voice in protest -- except the likes of Rev. Wright. And much more could be said regarding the issue of whether the U.S. "hates" blacks. All I can say is that, given the evidence, it's hard to argue that someone should never develop that impression.

* Does the U.S. government give blacks drugs? Why don't we ask whether there is a blatant differential in drug-enforcement policy between black neighborhoods and, say, white suburban neighborhoods? Might it not be suggested that certain "inner city" areas have been, basically, "triaged" out of eligibility for law enforcement, particularly of the "war on drugs" kind? Does our drug policy result in ridiculously high profits for drug dealers, which encourages them to make drugs more widely available and to see to it that the customer base gets renewed on a regular basis? And finally, do we "treat" drug users with jail time more often than with genuine rehabilitation? Would the situation be any worse if we really _were_ giving the stuff away for free?

* Is jail part of an officially-sanctioned plan for blacks? I have written elsewhere on the "prison industry" in the U.S. It is a massive job-creating and job-perpetuating institution, and its livelihood depends on having a reliable and ever-burgeoning supply of what Tom Wolfe (in "The Bonfire of the Vanities") calls "the chow" -- i.e. the chronically-under-arrest, or in jail, or out-on-bond members of the underclass that are, in fact, the life blood of the system. The situation as it stands is that the rest of the country expects a lot of blacks to be in jail, and blacks expect a lot of their own number to be in jail; it's taken for granted -- that's just the way things are. So no one objects because no one wants to admit that, as often as not, the law creates criminals. In particular, the law becomes a tool by which a dominant group can persecute the members of a non-dominant group, by picking out things they do or like, or their vulnerabilities, and declaring them "illegal". So if it turns out that blacks, for whatever reason, are prone to drug abuse, then the logical thing to do is pass laws against the abuse of those drugs that are especially common in the black world, and less common in the white world. So the ruling class gets to claim that it has "done its duty", the voting majority get a warm, fuzzy feeling knowing that there is a vast, jailed underclass in America and that they aren't in it, and the "justice" system gets the care and feeding it is accustomed to.

* Is genocide part of an officially-sanctioned plan for blacks? Well, let's see. "Abortion rights" was a movement started by white liberals. The Roe v. Wade decision was decided by, and applauded by, white liberals. Black women troop into abortion clinics by the thousands every day to undergo abortions, many of them entirely or partially government-funded, performed by, overwhelmingly, white doctors. I think a black person would have to be half blind to _not_ see something very sinister in all this. And secondly, how about the apparently limitless supply of guns of all types in the "ghetto"? Where on earth do they all come from -- I mean, seriously? And where do all those African "rebel groups" get all _their_ guns? I mean, these are people who are lucky to get one yam to eat all day long. But they have an arsenal that would put the Normandy invasion to shame. Draw your own conclusions; I've already drawn mine.

* Are blacks poor because of a government plot? Well, to begin with, American blacks are hardly "poor" by world standards. But they have it drilled into them, all day long, that they _are_ poor, by politicans looking for votes and for support for collectivist programs. So maybe this "poorness" is, at least in part, a meme -- but if so it's a government-sponsored one. And we can also count on that same system to make it difficult for that politically-reliable "poor" group to achieve actual prosperity -- by, for example, insisting that their kids attend the same hell-hole schools generation after generation. So -- bottom line -- I can't swear that there are government programs with the explicit mission to keep blacks poor. What I _can_ guarantee, however, is that there are great numbers of government programs that _depend_ on blacks (or someone) being, and staying, poor.

* Are blacks sick because of a government plot? Well, let's think about what contributes to "sickness". One thing is ignorance (schools again) -- another is bad food (junk food is the cheapest and most available of any food in the "inner city" -- how come?) -- another is substance abuse (see discussion of drugs, and note also that in many inner city areas the _only_ retail store on some blocks is the liquor store) -- and another is, quite frankly, just feeling like, what's the use, you're only going to get crapped on. (See any part of the above discussion.)

So I think we have to give Rev. Wright his due. It doesn't take much of a conspiracy theorist to realize that there is something terribly wrong with the "system" in its approach to the race issue. And yes, Rev. Wright may be dealing with the meme more than the reality when it comes to AIDS, but on the other points I'd say he was on pretty firm ground. And I'll bet Obama thinks so too -- but it doesn't play too well in Punxsutawney.

Hey La, Hey La, My Boyfriend's Back

Now here's a question that, as far as I know, has not yet been asked by _anyone else in the whole country_ -- no, not one commentator, or pundit, or rival politician. So of course it's my civic duty to raise the issue, and demand answers. Let's say Hillary bags the nomination, and gets elected. She moves back into the White House, dragging her reprobate husband with her. He gets his own office (as befits "first mate"), his own secretary, and... his own interns? Holy cow, here we go again! This guy is going to be happier than a pig in stuff, and Hillary's going to have... well, how much time will she have, really, to monitor Bill, since she will be expected to fulfill her duties in a little thing called the presidency? So what does she do? Hire a platoon of keepers, nursemaids (oh wait, forget that one), watchdogs, beefy RNs with Popeye-like forearms? How about one of those lock-on wrist bracelets that monitor one's every move via GPS? And don't forget, he has his own squad of Secret Service agents already watching him, and they are under his orders. So do her Secret Service agents get into a showdown at high noon in the Rose Garden with his Secret Service agents, over whether he can take R&R breaks to South Capitol Street? Does he get to schedule his own White House cultural event series, like pole dancers from that club down on Route 1? I mean, how is this supposed to work? And while she peruses her daily "Bill briefing" (and his briefs), who's running the country?

Frankly, I don't know why the Obama campaign hasn't pounced on this one. It strikes me as the biggest Achilles heel of a notional Clinton II administration. I mean, forget the "experience" issue -- she's had too much of that already! I want to know what she intends to do about _this_ issue, since, if unresolved, it could bring all other administration initiatives to a screeching halt. (Hmm.... on the other hand... let's just forget I said anything.)

When a Dream Becomes a Nightmare

Two highly-qualified and charismatic candidates, each representing one of the main preferred victim groups. A Republican administration with a catastrophic foreign policy record, headed by a president who makes Gerald Ford look like Albert the Great. Economic woes -- always good news for liberals seeking to regain office. Can anyone think of a more desirable scenario for the Democrats than this? And yet all is not well with the party symbolized by the jackass. Or is it a mule? (Donkey? Burro? Does anyone actually know?) At any rate, the race between Hillary and Obama, which ought to represent some idyllic form of liberal valhalla, has turned sour. You would think that two liberal candidates with these credentials would have virtually identical platforms -- which, in fact, they do (at least, according to what they say). You would think that it would have been long-since settled that one would run for president and the other for the Stepin Fetchit part -- er, I mean vice president. But that hasn't happened either. But mainly, you would think that any sign of rancor or hostility -- or questioning of the other's qualifications -- would be the last thing anybody would stoop to, since isn't it just fabulous news for liberalism, and "diversity", and "affirmative action", and all the other golden bricks paving the road to Utopia?

But woe is us, human nature rears its ugly head, and rather than a friendly, gentle, non-judgmental tea party we have the equivalent of a feces fight between two troupes of primates in the jungles of The Cameroon. And the fight is not even about the candidates; it's about their pastors, friends, supporters, spouses, children... shoe size... anything but what might be considered relevant to performance as president. Now clearly, the liberal scenario -- assuming there was one -- would have had one of two groups emerge first, as the group of reference for a strong candidate. That person could have been a woman, or black... or, I suppose, a black woman, but that's kind of a waste of victimology. That person, if elected, would have served proudly and turned the nation away from all of its old habits of bigotry, prejudice, and "hate". The way would then have been paved for the _other_ candidate, i.e. the black, or woman, or whatever. (Clearly, no other "minorities" or victim groups need apply at this early stage of the plan. There will be plenty of room for lesbian albino Eskimo paraplegics in elections to come.) But again, human nature being what it is, we wound up with one candidate of each persuasion, and like piglets fighting for the sow's teat, they each insisted that this was "their year" and that it was "time" for someone of their demographic to ascend to the throne. And how, after all, could the powers-that-be in the Democratic Party deny either one their shot? Haven't they been saying, for years, that everybody is a winner (except, of course, white male Christian heterosexuals) and all must receive a prize? But it's an embarrassment of riches, and it creates unwanted friction... and mostly, it exposes the Democrats for the perennial hypocrites and exploiters that they are. In their mind, putting a member of a given group up for elected office is no more than a way to con other members of that same group into voting for the person... and making others vote for them as well in order to assuage liberal guilt. But nobody wants to think about the "negatives" until it's too late -- and even then, no one wants to talk about them except their rivals in the race, and even then in (usually) euphemisms. So the Clinton campaign has clearly, um, tarred Obama, if not feathered him, because he is black. And the proof of his blackness is not his actual racial heritage, since being an actual African doesn't really "count" in black America. The proof is in his church, and his pastor, and the "radical" things he has been soaking up from 20 years of sitting in a pew -- things that, up until a few weeks ago, any _white_ liberal candidate could have said with impunity. The negatives on Hillary hardly need pointing out. Start with the fact that she has already _been_ president (OK, "co-president", BFD) for eight years, and that she was at the heart of nearly every scandal that rocked (or should have) that administration. Then consider that, if she moves back into the White House, she brings with her the biggest pile of baggage to ever squeeze through the front gate -- namely, Bill Clinton.

Yes, the Democrats are wondering, right about now -- in the immortal words of Rodney King -- "why can't we just get along?" But they are having to live in the world they created for everyone else, and I call it poetic justice.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Look Who's Balkan

Dateline: June 15, 2011. Avrik Vyadukshkashvili, an apricot grower in the Caucasus, has declared independence from Vay-Tomatsh, a former county which last year seceded from the province of Gulibjibridze, formerly part of South Ossetia, which succesfully separated itself from the Republic of Georgia in 2009. (Georgia had, of course, been part of the Soviet Union prior to its breakup.) The U.S. has already approached Mr. Vyadukshkashvili with offers of trade preferences and a recommendation for "fast track" admittance to NATO (U.N. membership being, of course, assured). Mutual defense agreements are "still on the drawing board", according to inside sources. Upon admittance to NATO, the new country, covering roughly 40 acres, will be known as Apricotpitva, and will join over 500 other new member states, most of which have been carved out of territory formerly belonging to the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia. Russia has, of course, expressed strong opposition to this latest fractionation of its former mighty empire. The Russian foreign minister said, "We encouraged the South Ossetians to separate from Georgia, which was not extending them their full minority rights. Then we opposed the secession of Gulibjibridze from South Ossetia because we had proof that it was part of a "splittist" campaign on the part of the United States and NATO. So when our friends the Vay-Tomatchniks came to us with tales of oppression and persecution from the Gulibjibridzens, we naturally took their side, counting on that to settle matters. Now we have this upstart fruit vendor thinking he can declare himself a separate country. What's this world coming to?" The United States ambassador to NATO made almost the exact same statement, with the appropriate changes of who is friends with whom, and whose fault it is.

(back to the present) A wild "Mouse That Roared"-style exaggeration, you say? Well, so would the present state of affairs (and vice versa) have been a few short years ago. All of a sudden we have a resurgence of not only nationalism -- the bane of Europe for lo these many centuries -- but the advent of something brand new, namely that every little ethnic group that can define itself on a basis more firm than the kind of cheese they make is insisting that it not only be recognized as a distinct group -- not all that tall an order, really -- but that it be allowed to separate itself out and declare itself a new country. Many of these groups, way before they are "recognized" by anyone else, have lobbyists working Capitol Hill... they start issuing visas, and stamps... they put out CD collections of their folk songs... they talk Playboy into featuring their country in a "Girls of ... " spread... and so on. Now, all of this is perfectly understandable. Everyone would prefer to be king of their own little mole hill than an anonymous part of something bigger. I mean, look at what has happened in the U.S. in recent years, with "identity politics" starting to take the upper hand. The days of selling one's birthright for a mess of melting pottage are over. Plus, look at all the business it sends National Geographic's way!

I find none of this objectionable per se. It's charming... atavistic... anachronistic... funky... and all the rest. And it constitutes a full employment act for mapmakers. What I cannot see, however, is why the U.S. insists on cheering this process on, and not just from the sidelines but from center field, by providing all the aid and abettance it can. Why is it so important to us, in other words, that the world be fragmented into ever smaller-sized pieces, each with its own government, foreign policy, currency, national anthem, flag, Olympic team, and restaurant in Epcot? I mean, we're a fine one to uphold the "self-determination" efforts of people halfway around the globe -- we fought the most vicious and wasteful war in our history to prevent the Southern states from doing precisely that. We have regretted, in the past, the provincialism in places like the Balkans that seems inevitably to lead the "great powers" into war. We hardly squeaked when the Soviets re-formed the Russian Empire in their own image, and when China took what was left between Siberia and the Sea of Japan, and from the Gobi to the Himalayas. And, of course, we were doing our own empire-building as well -- adding new states in improbable locations, and establishing what were, in effect, colonies in even less probable places. But somewhere along the line this all got turned around, and -- once it was relatively safe -- we started to develop a new respect for the self-determination of "indigenous" peoples. Our own Indian reservations were given new latitude in how they run their own affairs... we let Panama slip away... and we relished the process by which first Yugoslavia, then the Soviet Union, broke into fragments like so many mirrors. Well, it just could be that the old idea of "divide and conquer" had something to do with all of this. If we can't win over an entire country to our point of view, surely we can win over one province at a time. And, after all, we aren't building an "American" empire anyway -- this is NATO, right? -- a nice, peace-loving, harmless -- and really boring -- organization. So how come the Russians don't see it that way? Old-fashioned paranoia, or something with an actual basis? When they tried putting their nukes in Cuba way back when, we protested mightily -- and gave up a similar project in Turkey as a means of keeping the peace. Well, Russia never had any right to feel threatened, did they now? I mean, we're always on the side of peace, as can be plainly seen in Iraq, er... well, forget about it. But we never do anything impulsive and without just cause; remember Vietnam? Oh wait, "oops again". OK, so maybe they do have a reason to get sore. But this is the wave of the future, and they'll just have to get out of the way or get trampled. [sound of phone ringing] Um... yeah... the Hispanics in the Southwest want to secede? Where's General Sherman when we really need him?

Exploding Liberal Heads of Yesteryear

The world-wide uproar over Tibet seems, on the one hand, to constitute a kind of cleansing ritual for countries (like our own) that are starting to think the Chinese have been pulling a con job on everybody for the last few years -- culminating in being awarded the Olympics, surely a star in the crown of acceptance into the "international community". Tibet is, of course, China's most obvious and intractable Achilles heel. It's as if our treatment of the Indians and the Vietnam war were rolled into one -- a prominent boil that no amount of cosmetic surgery is going to efface. It's also one of the better contemporary examples of cultural genocide. Tibet has been turned into a kind of Indian reservation, with the natives skulking about among ruined temples while the Han Chinese clink champagne glasses and patronize discos. This is clearly an issue that could have been raised to the current level of awareness a bit earlier -- say, decades -- but for whatever reason it had to wait until now, when the damage has been done and the Chinese hold way too many cards -- military and economic -- to be trifled with. And so any U.S. official who goes to China these days -- regardless of the nature of their mission -- has to "raise concern", and make a token plea for "moderation" and "tolerance", when, in fact, the Chinese have a lot more to lose by being moderate and tolerant than they have to lose by doing what they're doing -- and they know it, and we know it, and they know we know, and we know they know, etc. So it's an exercise in futility.

Plus, where were these clowns back when the Red Guard was dynamiting temples and killing all the Tibetans they could get their hands on? Well, to begin with, they were hiding behind our convenient pose of "not enjoying diplomatic relations with China". This, in turn, was based on the Korea unpleasantness, in which it was revealed that China had taken the side of North Korea against our friends in South Korea. And that, in turn, was one very large chicken coming home to roost, namely that we had supported Mao Zedong against Chiang Kai-shek in the Chinese civil war. (If that doesn't sound quite correct to you, I suggest you read "Mao" by Chang and Halliday. It's all there in black and white -- and red.)

But what they were also hiding behind was even more sinister, and that was the unspoken premise (or "fervent hope", depending on one's political convictions) that China, as a communist totalitarian state, might just be on the winning side of history. This was the same notion that kept the New Dealers in thrall to Russia -- the feeling that they (the Russians) were accomplishing something that we did not have quite the courage or fortitude to try. So, as the Cold War raged after World War II, a considerable subculture within the regime preferred that we pull our punches, or better yet not punch at all, because today's "atheist enemy" might be tomorrow's overseers. (Again I say -- want a reality check on this point? Please read "Blacklisted by History" by M. Stanton Evans.)

Thus, the ambivalences that have characterized our relations with the communist world, and specifically China, from the beginning. On the other hand, our dealings with traditionalist cultures -- and Tibet is nothing if not traditionalist -- have been ambivalent in a different way. While we are intrigued and charmed by their curious and old-fashioned ways -- in a kind of patronizing, National Geographic manner -- we also can never help pointing out that things like "royalty" and "theocracy" and "arranged marriages" and so on are simply not done any longer, at least not by people who want to be considered "civilized". And Tibet was a special case even then, because it was not some African outpost with mud huts and witch doctors, naked women hoeing yam fields, and the occasional spear-throwing encounters between villages. It was an advanced society in many ways -- artistically, philosophically, and theologically. Its culture was rich, it had a highly-developed system of traditional medicine, and even a considerable administrative bureaucracy (something that should have endeared it to liberals). But doggone it, there was that "lamaism" business, and "living deities", and having the head of the religion also being the head of state. It's a miracle, actually, that we didn't move right in and try to "modernize" the place. But the Brits had a go at that earlier on, and results were equivocal at best. For one thing, those blasted mountains get in the way of everything, and India was a much easier mark, and right next door to boot. So Tibet got left pretty much alone, until the Chinese not only took the same sort of offense we might have taken, but actually did something about it. And it's the fallout from their "final solution to the Tibetan problem" that has everyone wearing scratchy diplomatic underwear today.

Part of it also is rising expectations of China, and of what it's fair and reasonable to expect. Under Mao, China was about as approachable as a rabid wildebeest. We got up every morning thankful that they hadn't started World War III the previous night, just for the fun of it. Their teenagers -- always the most dangerous element of any society -- were running amok, destroying and sacking the entire country, all under the watchful eye and benign moon-shaped countenance of The Chairman. (Of course, eventually he decided to announce that the party was over by mowing a few hundred thousand of them down with machine guns -- but by then it was too late.) In the event, the "opening" of China was accomplished by -- to give the devils their due -- Henry the K and Richard Nixon, following hot on the heels of a ping-pong team we sent over to test the waters. Before long, Mao went to his reward and his wife Hillary [ed. -- do you mean Chiang Ching by any chance?] was walled into a niche in the Forbidden City, and China began its long march to the enlightened and broadminded regime we see in evidence today. So of course it is no longer unreasonable to expect China to behave in a civilized manner toward its "minorities" -- hence the disappointment when it shows few signs of doing so.

But there is another theme to be brought out here, that will explain the "exploding heads" reference. When I was in college, the cynosure of all the liberals, socialists, communists, fellow travels, and useful idiots was Russia, AKA the Soviet Union. Students would make a visit over there during the summer and come back raving about how friendly the people were (except for that creep in the black trench coat who kept following us around -- what was his deal, anyway?) -- and how "you could go anywhere" (well, anywhere the Intourist guide said was not "closed for maintenance", the way the entire country east of the Urals always seemed to be) -- and how fantastic the ice cream was. China, on the other hand, was just a bit too remote and too strange to play much of a part in youthful liberal fantasies -- until, that is, the Cultural Revolution came along, at which point the campuses bloomed with "Red Detachment of Women" wannabees in black braids, khaki shorts, boots, and toting the Little Red Book. (At least they didn't start playing accordions, like the actual Red Guard did.) Well, this was all well and good, at least for a while. But then, as indicated above, Mao and his co-president fell from grace, and a bunch of dullards took over, and the bloom was off the rose. So campus liberals moved on to bigger and better things -- like drugs and Eastern religions. And this, of course, is where Tibet comes in, since it was the exotic Asian country par excellence, it was in the mountains (always popular with liberals, for some reason), it was right next door to Nepal, where -- as everyone knew -- the weed was totally killer, dude, and, most of all, it was the wellspring of an ancient form of Buddhism. Now, Buddhism had captured the imaginations of the college and graduate school (humanities departments, at any rate) set like nothing since the Spanish Civil War. Traveling gurus sprang up like mushrooms... hippies gulped down those same mushrooms hoping for enlightenment... the ones with money actually traveled to India and Nepal... the ones with less money bought themselves a sitar and attempted to learn to play it... and the ones with no money got stoned. And for a while, no one cared about theocracy or anything else. Buddhism was cool, and Tibetan Buddhism was extra cool because it didn't involve celibacy -- au contraire!

So now we had two political/cultural trends on a collision course -- the love affair with China, the Red Guard, and Maoism -- i.e. "purity" if you're a dedicated communist -- and the love affair with Eastern mysticism of the Buddhist stripe, with all its appurtenances. Sooner or later it dawned on someone that these two equally-admired belief systems were at knife points -- or, let's say, the Tibetans were at the points of Chinese knives. And we started to see the spectacle of young pilgrims returning from the holy land, i.e. Tibet, sort of nervously having to admit that, well, yes, the Chinese occupation had been a bit harsh at times, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with communism, oh no... but there's nothing wrong with Tibetan culture either... well, maybe they could do without the lamas. But the Dalai Lama is a totally cool dude, and... well, I know the Chinese forced him to leave his homeland and all, but... [cue sound of liberal head exploding].

Now, I say we have passed the critical stage of this particular liberal dilemma. But the basic situation, and the prospects for additional exploding heads, have not disappeared entirely. American liberals are still chasing Asian will-o-the-wisps of all sorts, and their simplistic view of the world still keeps them from realizing that all in the East is not picture-postcard perfect. So, when two of their favorite ideas/causes/images/icons come into inevitable conflict, all they can do is wander around and mutter to themselves. The Tibetan issue is just the latest manifestation of that muttering.

Next stop: Prom Queen

A somewhat troubling article appeared in today's paper concerning a young man in California who was shot and killed by a fellow student, in what prosecutors are calling a "hate crime", based on the fact that the victim was -- and I quote -- "a gay eighth-grader who used to go to school in makeup, high heels and earrings." So OK, let's not have any idle remarks about David Bowie; this is for real.

To begin with, what constitutes being a "gay eighth-grader"? Are we to assume that this kid's gender identity and sexual proclivities were already set in stone, at that tender age (15, by the way, which makes one a bit curious as to why he was still in eighth grade -- but let that go for now)? I thought the conventional wisdom was that kids that age are still infinitely malleable, and that all one has to do is manipulate the environment a bit and they come out a different person. You don't suppose this has anything to do with the "gay gene" argument, do you? I have always considered that issue a monument to liberal hypocrisy, since it represents a point of view exactly 180 degrees from liberal premises on all other social and psychological issues.

And of course, no story of this type would be complete without some mush-brained sympathy for the "perp". Apparently the kid who came to school in drag might have been "threatening to (his) ego and... sense of identity". The same way watching the Olympic opening ceremonies on TV threatens mine, I guess. Nonetheless, he has been charged -- as an adult, no less, which is probably another spin-off of "hate crime" legislation, in addition to the fact that his name was revealed even though he's a minor -- and appears headed for jail, where he will have to face the wrath of people from all across the sexuality spectrum. Wonder how his ego and sense of identity will survive in that environment.

So far, the story is merely sad and tragic. But I have a question. Did the school not have at least some responsibility in this matter? I'm not talking about the obvious one of keeping a kid with a gun from showing up in class. I'm talking about maybe just taking the victim aside before he became a victim, and oh-so-gently hinting that his clothing and grooming habits might not give him the highest survival potential in a public school environment -- especially in what the article describes as a "strawberry-growing section" of the state (read: "descendents of Okies")? Ah, but wait! Here we go again. Let's say the kid had been called into the principal's office and provided even that modest level of counseling. The school could have -- and given that we're talking about California here, undoubtedly would have -- been slapped with a lawsuit faster than you can say "Boy George". Discrimination! Bigotry! "Hate"! And so forth. So the school did the right thing in their lights, namely allow the kid to prance on, until he pranced into a couple of bullets. So I guess they're off the hook, aren't they? Sure beats having to deal with a discrimination suit.

I'll say it again -- when is someone going to finally put the public schools out of their misery?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Snapshots: 3/29/08

Sometimes little things mean a lot. But you have to read between the lines to find them. For instance:

1. An AP article on the Iraq war leads off with: "U.S. forces stepped deeper Friday into the Iraqi government's fight to cripple Shiite militias..." et cetera. Wait a minute! The last I knew, the Bush administration was spending all its spare time trying to get the _Iraqi government_ to "step deeper" into the war. It is our war, after all, not theirs, but it would be nice to have a bit of help once in a while. Could it be that the regime -- of which the AP is a reliable representative -- is providing a sneak preview or model for the next phase of the conflict, which is that the Iraqi government pretends to fight while we provide air support? Well, a guy dropping bombs from ten miles up is less likely to come home in a body bag, right? And the Iraqis can kill each other off until doomsday, for all we care. Sounds like a plan to me. But it also reminds me of a certain phase of the Vietnam war, I think it's called "the end". But... at what point do we get to see American personnel evacuated from the Green Zone via helicopter? There has been an upsetting dearth of iconic photographs from the Iraq conflict. Someone better start taking some good pictures, and fast, before it's too late.

2. Chelsea Clinton, speaking at a campaign stop in Indiana, responded to a questioner, who asked if her mother's credibility had been hurt during the Lewinsky scandal, as follows: "I don't think that's any of your business." Well, sorry Chelsea, but your mother's credibility is very much the business of the American public. She's not just another SUV-driving soccer mom; she's running for president. So forget all this "you shouldn't hurt my mom's feelings -- she's such a sensitive and delicate flower" crap. (This incident did, however, settle a question that was raised now and then during the Clinton I administration. It is now clear that Chelsea is, in fact, the biological child of both Bill and Hill.)

3. The last good Democrat -- or one of the few -- namely Pennsylvania's Bob Casey, has come out for Obama, who is spending time "wooing blue-collar Democrats and Catholics" (assuming that's not a redundancy). Well, I have a few things to say about blue-collar Democrats and Catholics who still vote Democratic, but that can wait. The point is that Obama is clearly hoping to cut into a significant group of pigeons -- er, voters -- that Hillary had counted on to put her over in the biggest remaining "Rust Belt" state. So let's see -- she has told the blacks to move to the back of the bus, and now she's seeing her Catholic homies getting chipped away. Are there enough NPR listeners in Pennsylvania to keep her campaign alive? At this rate, they're all she's going to have left.

4. Meanwhile, Pat Leahy, the take-no-prisoners senator from the peace-loving and bucolic state of Vermont, has said that it's time for Hillary to toss in the towel. That's right -- the Scourge of Conservatives, who passes out subpoenas like Tic Tacs, is telling her to hang it up (and he's not talking about her hot-line phone to George Soros). But wait! Whatever happend to that death-blow that the Clinton campaign struck on Obama, by pointing out that his pastor makes the Black Panthers look like cute little kitty kats? This is all happening so fast. One minute, the Clinton camp is saying that Obama ought to "fuhgeddaboutit" -- that, in effect, if he thinks the Pastor Wright skirmish was unpleasant, he ought to see what's coming next. And the next minute, Leahy is saying "fuhgeddaboutit" to Hillary. Can a total Democrat meltdown be far behind? And aren't we Pennsylvanians lucky to have front-row seats?

5. A two-headed lizard continues to intrigue customers at a North Carolina pet store. But rumors that it is about to become the official mascot of the Clinton campaign have no basis, according to the management.

6. Update: The end-of-the-worlders holed up in a Russian cave are minus 7 members, all women who decided that facing the end of the world in broad daylight was preferable to spending one's last days in a cave with a bunch of Russian men. Well, we know that life in a cave is much more suited to men anyway -- or so the feminists tell us. And more drop-outs are expected at any time. Clearly, the rumors of Janet Reno's involvement had some basis, and it's obvious that the cave-dwellers caught wind of it. Problem is, do Russian caves burn as readily as wooden buildings in Texas during a windstorm? Stay tuned and we'll find out.

7. It turns out that Afghanistan has people who are actually referred to as "poppy police". (Somebody better warn the Wicked Witch of the West.) Two of them were killed recently for trying to eradicate Afghanistan's only cash crop. Well, you can hardly blame people for getting resentful when stooges on the U.S. payroll go after their main means of livelihood. Of course, it's America's fetish for eradicating all "mind-altering" drugs, and the people who love them, that is responsible for the high profitability of poppy growing in the first place. The U.S. is waging an Opium War in reverse in Asia, and having about as much luck with it as the Brits had with the first one.

8. And finally, a hot dog shop in downtown Pittsburgh has named two new menu items after the leading Democratic candidates, to wit: the Barackwurst and the Hillbasa. So, does this mean that Hillary's kielbasa is bigger than Obama's wurst? The implications are staggering (but not all that surprising, actually). And the shop owners did show remarkable restraint in not naming any of their entrees after Bill Clinton, or any body part thereof. I guess they had too much self-respect to go for such, um, low-hanging fruit.

Friday, March 28, 2008

X is Dead; Long Live X

Whenever you hear an announcement, pronouncement, or prognostication concerning the "death" of something, you can be assured that one of roughly four things is actually the case. The first -- and rarest -- is that the thing in question actually is "dead". Thus, the "death of fascism", which was certified by the end of World War II, really was a bonafide death. Which is to say, fascism _as a political/economic system_ did not survive World War II and the defeat of its primary exponents, i.e. Italy and Germany. What _did_ survive, of course, is the use of "fascism" as a scare word. But that has degenerated so badly from overuse that it has lost all meaning. For example, if opposition to affirmative action equals "fascism", then we have nothing more than a short-hand term for "something I don't like". So I could go into a candy store and pronounce the marshmallow peanuts "fascist" if I happened not to care for them. That's about as much actual meaning as the term has these days. Now, of course, this has not stopped politicians and pundits all across the spectrum from pronouncing our alleged enemies on the world stage alternatively "terrorists" or "Islamo-fascists". As to the former term, "terrorism" most commonly refers to (1) people we don't like, who (2) wage unconventional warfare. People we _do_ like who wage unconventional warfare are, of course, anything but terrorists. They might be "freedom fighters", "counter-insurgents", or part of a "democratic uprising", or even "anti-fascists". But the term will always be one of esteem. On the other hand, people we don't like who wage _conventional_ warfare are an irritant, but we can at least pay them the grudging respect that they are playing by the rules. And as to the latter term ("Islamo-fascism"), I doubt very much if a bunch of bearded guys in bathrobes living in caves and drinking tea laced with camel's milk have consciously embarked on a campaign of political fascism, with all of its quite involved (contrary to stereotype) social and economic programs. These are simple men, after all, and their strength is that they believe, and ruthlessly act upon, one main idea at a time. The idea they are acting on at present is that the U.S., and its troops, and its customs, businesses, representatives, agents, and lackeys must all be driven out of the Middle East, once and for all, and that Israel, which they see as the illegitimate offspring of Western Europe and the United States, must be crushed into fine power. And once that is accomplished, they will sit down over tea (and camel's milk) and decide what the next main idea is going to be. (It could be to Islamicize Europe, but that will already be an accomplished fact by then.)

So what we have in the case of "fascism" is something that really is dead, but the term has such high impact that it has been retained as an all-purpose scare word, used primarily as a way leftists can say they just don't like rightists, but say it in such a way that it sounds like they're making a serious statement about political theory and practice. In fact, you can be assured that if fascism really _had_ survived World War II, you wouldn't have every idiot in town mouthing the term, because the real thing would be available for comparison. As it is, there is very little living memory of bonafide fascism, so we can use the word any way we like and no one is the wiser.

As a side note -- it's also the case that, for everything that could reasonably be declared "dead", there are vested interests in keeping it alive -- or in, at least, keeping alive the myth that whatever it is is still an imminent threat, and vast amounts of effort and government funding must be expended to combat it. Familiar examples of this "not so fast!" category are: Racism (on the part of whites, of course), Sexism (especially the mythical "glass ceiling"), and Homophobia. Behaviors that have been legislated out of existence for decades, in some cases, and the associated attitudes, which are mercilessly pounced upon and severely sanctioned whenever they threaten to spring up -- these are still considered to be barely contained, and almost at the breaking point -- again, for the purposes, among others, of creating never-ending government programs, entitlements, and lucrative jobs for "experts", "facilitators", "counselors", and other parasites, not to mention the academically-vapid college and university programs whose names all end with the word "Studies". (Someone once commented that if a program would sound absurd if the word "Mathematics" was substituted for the word "Studies", then it is, in fact, absurd. Try it! It's fun!)

Now we come to the second meaning of "X is dead", which is "we know darn well it isn't, but gosh, wouldn't it be nice if it was?" So George Bush consigns communism to the "ash-heap of history". Well, someone better tell Hugo Chavez, and his buddies all over Latin America. Someone better tell rebel bands all over Africa and East Asia. What the "ash-heap" theory fails to take into account is that communism's appeal is not simply based on passing economic or political situations. It represents a profound state of mind, which, in turn, reflects a serious and recurring flaw in human nature. (For an excellent discussion of this and myriad other points, see Whittaker Chambers' "Witness".) So much for wishful thinking. As soon as we declare something dead, it springs up again. In fact, it's even more likely that the reason we go out of our way to declare it dead is that it's _already_ springing up, and we feel that by reciting incantations and casting spells, we can keep it from happening. That would be nice, but it simply doesn't work.

Thirdly, we have things that are declared dead, or at least "ended", and the main motive for this seems to be that, once you have decided that something has ended, you can go ahead and write a book about it without being afraid that the book will be obsolete a week after it's published. So we had the infamous "The End of History" by Francis Fukuyama, who, if he had had any humility, would have declared that this was his last book, and he would have stuck to it. But hey, a guy's gotta make a living, right? So now he writes about what happened since the end, which is sort of like Stephen Hawking writing about what happened before the beginning. Now, if he had titled the book "A Slight Pause in History", that would have actually been quite accurate to describe the period between the Soviet breakup and 9-11, when even the president of "the sole superpower" could while away afternoons dallying with nubile interns in the White House hot tub. But a book by that title would not have sold any copies. And for that matter, the Cold War hasn't ended either; it's just morphed into a different form -- away from the political and theoretical and more toward the economic, controlling resources, and manipulating markets.

Finally, we have the example of two columns that both came out just last week, one contending that "liberalism is dead" and the other that "conservatism is dead". Well, if this is so, then what on earth are the presidential candidates fighting about? Have we all been politically neutered at this point? No, it's not a matter of anything being "dead" -- it's more like the _living_dead. Which means, both liberalism and conservatism (as represented by the Neocons, at least) have lost their cutting edge. They have faded into the background clutter and are no longer capable of inspiring anybody based on their _ideas_ -- although they can still motivate people when they appeal to baser motives like greed, envy, resentment, fear, the lust for power, etc. When an idea is absorbed into the baseline culture to such an extent that it no longer stands out, it may be described as dead in a sense. But in another sense, it is very much alive, in that everyone is used to it, and it's taken for granted. Yesterday's "radicalism" is today's standard procedure. (Ironically, when liberals accuse conservatives of trying to "turn back the clock" what they are really saying is "Don't make our ideas 'radical' again. Keep them in place as the established and accepted way of doing things." In other words, the _real_ "conservatives" of our time are the liberals.)

Another familiar quality of ideas that become so accepted that they are no longer thought of as "ideas" is their tendency to regress to the mean, i.e. to more and more approach, or accommodate themselves to, the actual habits of the people. So we have, at this point, a nexus of "liberalism" and "conservatism" whereby there is very little difference between them in terms of application, the conceptual differences having long since been lost in the everyday shuffle of people trying to get more out of the system than they put into it. And it is this convergence that becomes the new "establishment", and that acts as a single organism when it is threatened, as witness the reaction to the Ron Paul campaign. Both "sides" of the current election struggle took time out to lob their largest-caliber shells at Ron Paul. He was more of a threat to the Neocons, for example, than were either Hillary or Obama. And we see that when liberalism, or conservatism, are pronounced "dead", it may hold true on the operational level, and even to some extent on the theoretical level, but it doesn't hold true on the psychological level, i.e. in the clouded minds of their respective adherents, "liberalism" and "conservatism" still have salience, as do their respective iconography and symbolism. They are still accorded the reverence and devotion that were formerly reserved for religious movements. And they get their residual strength from the fact that they still appeal to people on the most primitive levels, having to do, I'm certain, with things like toilet training (for conservatives -- bad) and weaning (for liberals -- way too soon) -- if you'll accept a bit of gratuitous Freudianism! So there will always be "liberalism" and "conservatism", but the energy of those movements may be confined, more and more, to what is going on in people's heads rather than what is actually happening in the real world.

Men With Bangs

It suddenly struck me the other day that some of the most distorting, if not crushing, influences on the human spirit in our time are being perpetrated by men who wear their hair in bangs. To provide just a few examples:

* Bill Gates -- Who has, in effect, dictated how all the world has to think -- at least on any occasion where one is forced to interact with "automation", which, for most of us, is virtually all the time. The notion that the entire world has now become an extension of Bill Gates' brain is frightening, to say the least.

* Ken Burns -- Who, among other feats, has managed to reduce the entire Civil War -- the greatest catastrophe to ever befall the United States -- into a few sepia images and winsome tinkling on piano keys.

* George Tiller, AKA "Killer Tiller", the notorious late-term abortionist of Wichita, Kansas

* Moe (the mean bully) of "The Three Stooges"

Are there other examples out there? Please advise. Four data points are a bit meager upon which to base a theory.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Sarkozy, You So Crazy

So what's the uber-glam prez of La France doing ranting and raving in front of British Parliament, and saying that "We cannot afford to lose Afghanistan. Whatever the cost, whatever the expense, we cannot afford it." What's he doing, channeling JFK? (or Dick Cheney?) Seems to me that we can't afford to _not_ lose Afghanistan. Not that Iraq is not the premier tar baby of our time, but Afghanistan can't be much better. But maybe he deserves some credit. France seems to at least have been capable of making a distinction between a Taliban-infested country and one with no demonstrable connection to the Taliban -- something the Bush administration found to be absolutely impossible. I guess the French, with their considerable historical experience in the Moslem world, haven't yet adopted the American premise that "all rag-heads are the same" (including the Iraqis, who don't even wear burnooses). (Although they have been known to wear nooses.) And yet, I wonder at Sarkozy's missionary zeal. What, precisely, is the imminent threat that the Taliban present to France? Or is he just trying to bolster his credentials as something other than a mush-brained socialist? Or perhaps it's a way of distancing France from the cozy relationship it had with Saddam Hussein for all those years, _including_ the time of the Gulf War and afterwards.

By the way, Queen Elizabeth presented the president with the Order of the Bath. (No one dared tell him that every Frenchman who visits England is given this same order.)

Hillary's China Curse

OK, I'll bet you think you know what this post is going to be about, based on the title. Wrong! It has nothing to do with China, the country -- although, heaven knows, Hillary drags China baggage around like a third-class tourist in Mexico. No, this is about real china, i.e. the kind one dines (not "eats") off of, the kind one... _starts thinking about months before one could possibly move into the White House_. As you'll recall, one of Teresa Heinz Kerry's countless examples of chutzpah during the 2004 campaign was to start to pick out china patterns, curtains, and upholstery for an eventual move into the White House (which, in her case, required a bit of, um, "belt-tightening" compared to her accustomed luxury digs). The minute the public found out she was talking about china, the campaign went downhill, and it never recovered. Thus, the "china curse". Hillary is, of course, tempting fate not by talking about china, curtains, etc., since the Clintons already have all that stuff, and it has already done service in the White House. (They were just holding onto it so it wouldn't get all stained with barbeque sauce from the Bushes.) Her presumption consists of already laying out plans for her first "100 days". Now, the "100 days" mystique is an exercise in grandiosity that we have allowed presidents to indulge in ever since FDR. To "turn the country around" in 100 days is about the same as turning an oil tanker around in the community swimming pool down the street. But they all claim the ability to do this, and Hillary is no exception. Among her 100-day projects is, of course, to "ask the Joint Chiefs to develop an Iraq withdrawal plan that can begin in 60 days". First question -- is that 60 days added to the 100 days, or are they concurrent? Because if they aren't, we're already up to five months, and that's not good. And remember, all she is promising is to "ask". Now, presumably, if she "asks", the Joint Chiefs will at least start to pretend to be working on a plan. (And, by the way, the Joint Chiefs per se don't "do" plans, that is left to low-level drones in the Pentagon, who are regularly outpaced by sea slugs.) But in any case, Paragraph 1 of said plan will, with absolute certainty, be a statement that the plan cannot be initiated in any 60 days -- or, for that matter, in 60 days from any date in the future. This news will be received by the Hillary White House with -- guess what -- great _relief_, since it is not, has never been, and never will be Hillary's real intent to withdraw our troops from Iraq. On that count, the fix is in. There are just too many vested interests in the indefinite continuation of this war, and many of them are supporting Hillary's campaign for, among other things, the express purpose of protecting their investment in the war. The idea is not to actually get out of Iraq, but to shift the blame for _not_ having gotten out away from the administration -- and the groundwork is already being laid for this, as we can see. Now, granted, Hillary has not promised that we will stay in Iraq for 100 years, as McCain has. But that will turn out to be a minor detail. Inauguration Day 2009 will be the occasion for the transfer of the albatross that is Iraq from Bush's neck to Hillary's -- and somewhere Richard Nixon is smiling, because that's the same trick the Democrats played on him when they tossed the Vietnam war into his lap in 1969.

We've received early warnings about all this, by the way -- it's not just my fevered imagination running in overdrive. Today's paper quotes one "expert" as saying that "Democrats... might worry about their party taking all the blame if a U.S. withdrawal creates a chaotic Iraq." Hmmm... a "chaotic" Iraq. Unlike the Iraq that we have today, I presume? He also says that "This is one area they will be very skittish about for the 2010 midterm elections. Advocating withdrawal from an unpopular war with a Republican president is one thing. Betting your majority on the aftermath of a withdrawal is another." (Nixon is no longer smiling. He's slapping his knee and laughing uproariously.) Of course, this assumes that the average American citizen gives a rat's ass about Iraq, which I seriously doubt. I, for one, would like to see the whole wretched place slide gently into the Persian Gulf. I can see it now -- a few bubbles, a bit of flotsam... maybe some jetsam... and then silence.

But in lieu of that unlikely occurrence, we have one that is almost as delectable. Ah yes -- 40 years later, the Democrats' "Vietnam karma" comes back to haunt them. It's a beautiful thing. Now, about those china patterns...

The Democrats Bet It All on White

It's time to go out on the same old shaky limb and make a prediction. This time, it's that the most notable, and lasting, effect of the current presidential campaign on American politics will be that the Democrats have, after having coddled and conned them for decades, finally told the black community to, basically, get lost -- that they, and their wacky ideas, no longer count. The occasion for this sea change in political strategy was, of course, the uproar caused by Barack Obama's "former" pastor and his "radical" statements about America and race relations -- statements which, by the way, in terms of intensity and degree of radicalism, differ hardly a whit from things we have heard from plenty of white liberals, the most recent of which is John Kerry. We also had Bill Clinton, who visited England in the flower of his youth looking like the Abominable Snowman, saying many of the same things; and he became "apologizer in chief" for eight long years, putting on sackcloth and ashes (in the figurative sense at least) at every third-world whistle stop, in reparation for America's sins. Then we have Jimmy Carter, the liberal gift that just keeps on giving, donning roller skates so he can get to as many people as possible in order to beg forgiveness (which, by the way, he has never done with regard to the titanic failures of his own administration -- but let that go for now).

But to return to the main point -- Hillary actually had the cosmic gall to state, on Tuesday, that there was some sort of _significance_ to the church one attended -- the implication being that Obama didn't just attend Pastor Wright's church because he liked the donuts and coffee. Now, all of a sudden, black radical ranting and raving, rather than being tolerated, if not actually encouraged, by the Democrats, has turned overnight into "hate speech". But wait! Isn't "hate speech", by definition, something that whites say about blacks? At least that's what it's been ever since it was defined. Where does Hillary get the right to declare that, all of a sudden, blacks -- and especially black preachers, the pillars of their community -- are capable of "hate speech"? The prospect causes one to swoon. How come white liberal hate speech directed against the United States is perfectly OK, but the very same words uttered by a man of color are not? We see now what a paradigm shift we are witnessing here.

Now, let's admit that nothing a Democratic candidate -- Hillary Clinton first and foremost -- ever says is not thoroughly "vetted", analyzed for potential impact, and refined down to the nth degree. "Spontaneity" is not one of their well-honed skills. Bill Clinton calls a focus group together every morning in order to decide what color necktie to wear. So when Hillary, basically, pokes a sharp stick in the eye of the black community, it means that she and her advisors have decided that the black community is, all of a sudden, dispensable. But think -- the black community has been the absolute, totally reliable core of the Democratic constituency for decades. Nothing that happened in the riotous Sixties had any impact on this, nor did any of the earlier manifestations of black radicalism -- nor have any of the current symptoms of pathology in urban black communities. Even occasional manifestations of anti-Semitism in the black community have not shaken the foundations of this marriage. The black community and the Democrats have stayed together, through thick and thin, up until now. But somehow, "blackness" is now considered a liability of some sort, and a viable black candidate (who, let's admit, isn't anywhere near as genuinely "black" as... well, as Jesse Jackson, say) turns out to be just not quite "right" for America. But rest assured that his lack of rightness is not about skin color per se, oh no. He's not right because of Wright -- and Wright is not right because he says -- well, actually, he says things that black community leaders have been saying for generations. And I can guarantee that for every black leader who says, or writes, "radical" things there are ten, or fifty, or a hundred, members of that community who agree -- tacitly, for the most part. Of course, blacks are arrayed all along a wide spectrum of belief and opinion on many issues, but to separate black "radicalism" from the black community is simply not possible -- as Obama himself pointed out in his milestone speech. So, by criticizing black radicalism, in the form of a single preacher, the Democratic establishment is _not_ just separating out a fringe element, but really getting in the face of the core community, and telling it that its feelings and views no longer count. To which one might ask, well then, whose views _do_ count, i.e. who are the Democrats going to turn to if they've decided to risk alienating this traditional element of their core? One of the answers is the Hispanic community, which has overtaken the black community in not only numbers, but in political awareness and activism. They threaten to turn the blacks into a has-been, no-longer-preferred victim group, and that has to hurt. Another answer is the more temporary and therefore tenuous group called "whites of all political persuasions who are sick and tired of this damned war and of the pinhead president who is supposedly running it". And of course, the traditional white liberal Democratic core is as stable as ever and is in no mood to bolt. In fact, they are looking forward to another eight years of the Clinton soap opera, having gotten tired of reruns.

So yes, this is a "historical" election, and the "history" has already been made by the Democrats. The black community -- and Obama along with it -- have been declared to be outsiders. And we can bet that, should convention time roll around with both candidates in the race, the hall in Denver will be the exclusive territory of the white liberal machine, and the blacks will be out in the street. Kind of like old times, when you think about it. Kind of nostalgic. And the Republicans will be laughing over their whiskey and cigars.

Another Hillary Howler

In her interview with the _entire editorial board_ of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Tuesday (sounds like a fair fight to me), Hillary Clinton allowed as how her harrowing tale of having dodged sniper bullets on a visit to Bosnia was based not on what actually happened, but on "sleep deprivation". Well hey, I've gone without sleep myself, and I know what it's like all of a sudden imagining that, at some past time, you were caught in a hail of bullets. But wait -- isn't this the same person whose campaign made a huge point of asking which candidate would be best able to handle a theoretical "3 A.M. phone call" regarding some world crisis? Well, now, let's see -- we have someone who suffers from false memories as a result of sleep deprivation. The phone rings at 3 A.M. A voice is heard on the other end of the line, uttering something in urgent tones. The president -- due to having been awakened at 3 A.M., i.e. "sleep deprivation" -- thinks that the North Koreans are shelling the White House, and orders all-out retaliation. I say, let's vote for someone like McCain, who really _did_ suffer sleep deprivation -- for years, at the hands of the Viet Cong -- but survived nonetheless.

What's amazing to me is that the Trib reported all this without the slightest trace of irony -- which, of course, was exactly the right approach. Just provide the rope and let her do the rest. Not only that, but not a single one of them jumped up during the interview and yelled, "Liar, liar, matronly pants suit on fire!"

Now, the rest of us are probably asking, is she totally delusional? Not for thinking she was under sniper fire but for thinking that people would actually fall for that cockabibble story -- or for the damage-control story that followed. See, the problem is that once someone gets used to lying about everything, all the time, they gradually lose track of what sorts of things can pass the credibility test and what sorts of things cannot. They experience a kind of "metaphysical drift", i.e. a morphing of the concept of what passes for reality. This, in turn, is based on their solipsistic view that they themselves are, in fact, the ultimate arbiters of what is real and what is not. What is real -- what "counts" -- is whatever increases their self-image, self-esteem, and power; the rest is just noise. So if you want someone else to define your reality for you, please -- by all means -- vote "Hillary!"

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Snapshots: 3/26/08

Once in a while the news of just one day provides a windfall of the loony and absurd -- easy pickings when one desires to take a break from, ahem, more in-depth and carefully-considered analysis. Today's bounty includes the following:

1. This Job Bites!

Seems that two teenaged girls from Bulgaria had to be rescued from an Italian circus that "forced one of them to swim with flesh-eating piranhas and snakes for the amusement of guests." What I'd like to know is, who were these "guests" who were willing to shell out all those lira, I mean euros, to have a look at this? They're the people we ought to be looking out for. Forget the circus owners, they were just trying to make a few bucks.

2. Species As Yet Undetermined

"Dinosaur fossil found on bus." No, actually it was just Ted Kennedy, who had fallen asleep on the way home from a drinking bout. The good news -- he didn't try to drive himself.

3. Tanks for the Memories

Apparently there is a "doomsday cult" holed up in caves in central Russia, awaiting the end of the world. Worse yet, they have fired on policemen sent to -- well, the item doesn't say but given that it's Russia we're talking about, I'm sure there is a law against that sort of thing. Rumor has it that the local authorities are in consultation with Janet Reno, the "Iron Maiden of Waco", and may hire her to implement the "final solution" of the problem of these silly cultists. Ms. Reno has not been in the news much of late, and has, in fact, been living in virtual seclusion since an incident in a bar in Daytona Beach where she was approached by a drunken fraternity member who said, "Hey, I just made a bet with my buddies over there. Are you a man or a woman?"

4. States of Apathy

In a victory for states' rights, the Supreme Court has decided that the President cannot force states to comply with international treaties, especially those termed "dumb-ass". Apparently, not all international treaties have the force of law, and in those cases where a treaty does not, the President just has to stand by, helpless, as the states defy it, or even laugh at it. This is going to get very interesting when it comes to issues like global warming, adoption of a common North American currency (tentatively named the "dollaroso"), or the building of a continuous elevated highway between Mexico and Canada (with stops only allowed for "nature calls").

5. I'll Pencil You In

It turns out that the technological aids developed for census takers are difficult to use and error-prone. The suggested solution, arrived at after the government perused reports by high-priced consultants, is to use "paper and pencil" -- a method which senior citizens may recall as having been popular as recently as the 1950s. My question is, what if this catches on? We may find the same solution being proposed for use in elections. And then, what about the checkout line at my local supermarket, where if the computers "go down", everyone has to go home empty-handed? This idea could revolutionize American life as we know it.

6. Terrorible, Just Terrorible

Our gal Hillary, never without an arsenal of statements that make one say, "Huh??", was in good form as she entered the lions' den on Tuesday for an interview with the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "She said an ambassador from Africa told her the bungled response (of the Bush administration to Hurricane Katrina) and slow recovery in New Orleans are recruiting tools for al-Qaida." Well, trust an ambassador from Africa to get right to the heart of things -- and Hillary to parrot whatever he says without thinking, "What the _hell_ is he talking about?" Well, I know that young men all over the Islamic world were deeply troubled by the administration's feckless handling of Katrina. I'm sure that sheiks and mullahs all over the Near East were citing formaldehyde-laden house trailers as reasons why guys should gird their loins with dynamite and go blow up the nearest shashlik stand. In fact, the last I heard, a radical Moslem leader had declared a fatwa based on the color of Bush's neckties.

7. Another Nuclear Noogie

Another Penn and Teller treatment of nukes and nuclear accessories surfaced when we "inadvertently" sent some ICBM parts to Taiwan (when they were probably intended for Kosovo). But not to worry, said one "expert" -- "I think the Chinese would have to be incredibly sensitive and paranoid to think the United States would be arming Taiwan with nuclear capabilities." Well, let's see -- "sensitive", check. "Paranoid", check. "Going apeshit over Tibet, so this is the worst possible time for something like this to happen", check. But still -- I'm sure reason will pevail over emotion. I mean, gosh, it's not like we provided nuclear weapons to Israel. (um, oops...)

Blumen Idiots

As if any further proof were needed, the Republicans have shown, once again, why they have earned the nickname, "The Stupid Party". The occasion was the arrest of one of the leading Clinto-fascists who are hoping to revive their careers by hitching their wagons to Hillary's star. Sidney Blumenthal, an "unpaid adviser to Clinton's campaign", agreed to plead guilty to driving while intoxicated -- on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, mind you -- but he is being spared a more serious charge of "aggravated drunken driving" (which is, I guess, driving while drunk and aggravated) because -- get this -- the arresting officer has been "activited by the military and ordered to Iraq". Now, let us pause for a moment to reflect on the enormous incompetence being put on display here. And let us also reflect on what would have happened if a _Republican_ operative had been nabbed for DWI (with or without aggravation) on the eve of an important primary. Number one, he would have been out of the campaign, on his can, before the first vote was cast the next morning. Second, the papers would have been full of it (well -- they already are -- ha ha), as would the networks, cable, etc. And the arresting officer would have been proclaimed a hero for having gotten one more political low-life off our nation's highways... he would have been invited up to the stage at Clinton rallies... wined and dined... offered 72 virgins in exchange for his testimony... and so on. But not this poor schmuck. He has to go over to Iraq -- under the orders of a Republican administration -- and get his butt shot off for having pulled over a sworn enemy of that same administration. Stupid, stupid!! If the Republicans had a grain of sense (and at least one ball) they would tear up those damn orders, punish the idiot that issued them in the first place, then put this guy under 24-hour guard and make sure he showed up at that trial bright and early, hoping to put Blumenthal away for as long as possible and cause a nice bit of damage to the Clinton campaign.

The principle that is missing in the Republican strategy is that they never ask themselves, "WWCD?" I.e., "What would Clinton do?", and it doesn't matter which Clinton you're talking about (any more than it makes any difference whether you're dating Mary-Kate or Ashley, since they both share the same pea-sized brain). You see, the Republicans still consider themselves "gentlemen", and "above all that". No one wants to get their white shoes dirty by getting it on with the street-wise, viper-like Democrats. But hey, this is how elections are won these days (and, I suspect, how they have always been won, truth be told). All you have to do is see the pure viciousness with which the Clinton gang is waging war on the Obama gang. (Of course, domestic strife is always the worst, as we know.) Do McCain and company really feel they're going to be treated any better -- or any better than the Democrats have been treating Bush all this time (albeit, richly deserved)? But hey, mud wrestling is just not in the Republican makeup. A Republican might be in the field artillery, but he will never be a "grunt". And as for nice guys finishing last, surely that doesn't apply to politics -- !

Monday, March 24, 2008

Trade, Free and Rough

Of the many subjects of current debate that are -- let's admit -- far over the head and beyond the comprehension of the average citizen (if not their elected representatives, although they are under suspicion as well), one of the most exasperating is that of "free trade". One reason for this is that it doesn't boil down to simple political affiliations; there are conservatives who are free-trade advocates and conservatives who are against it, and the same for liberals. Libertarians, of course, tend overwhelmingly to favor free trade, the way they favor free everything else -- uncoerced exchanges, that is, not food, shelter, and clothing. Most of the arguments one hears or reads tend to be on the emotional side, however. Unfree trade favors fat-cat domestic corporations and corrupt unions. Free trade favors fat-cat _international_ corporations, kills jobs domestically, and also gives China the upper hand in the world economy. Unfree trade means I get less for my dollar. Free trade means I get more, but it's all made in China and sold by Wal-Mart. Unfree trade preserves unique and/or high-quality American goods and services. Free trade encourages competition and discourages monopolies and "trusts", i.e. conspiracies to restrain trade or artificially inflate prices. And so in, ad infinitum. When it comes to the direct effect on my pocketbook, if I'm a worker in one of those industries that have been NAFTA'd, or otherwise moved off shore, I'm going to look at free trade about the way the Romans looked at the Huns. But if I'm secure in my job, and the "union label" goods cost twice what the stuff from China costs, I'm going to see unfree trade as blatant protectionism at my expense.

Now, I didn't fire up this post in order to straighten out anyone's thinking on this issue, because, frankly, I don't understand the ins and outs of it myself. It strikes me that, in principle, one ought to be able to buy and sell with anyone one pleases, without constraint by the government or any other entity. A sales tax at the same rate as a domestic exchange might be acceptable, on the premise that it's a not-unreasonable way to pay for government operations, but protective tariffs would be out. On the other hand, I can see how a domestic provider of goods and services might be a bit sore about the fact that someone overseas is willing to provide the same things for half -- one-third -- one-tenth the cost. I might even feel a bit of "solidarity" with that person. It might even get me to "buy American"... unless I can get a _really_ good deal somewhere else, of course.

Now, I say again, what I don't know about economics would fill volumes. But it seems obvious to me that money will tend to flow toward less-expensive products, other things being equal. And jobs will tend to flow in the direction of lower wages (a composite of, among other things, lower minimum wages, lower wage expectations based on a more modest standard of living, and less influence from organized labor). Goods will, of course, flow from Point A to Point B as long as the people who live in Point B have the cash to pay for them. (This is why the "balance of payments" problem baffles me completely. Wouldn't you _expect_ that people with _more_ money would naturally tend to purchase labor -- in the form of goods and services -- from people with _less_ money? And that, therefore, money will always flow _from_ the richer country to the poor country?) (But the poor country stays poor because the money that comes in is either hoarded by an elite, or distributed among a much larger population than that of the rich country. And, they don't demand as much for their labor. The rich country stays rich because they have their _own_ resources -- their own marketability -- which fetches a higher price than the goods and services offered by the poor country. At least that's how it appears to work most of the time.)

Well, anyway... it also strikes me that our trade problems, and balance of payment problems, are concentrated primarily on trade relations with third-world countries (and China -- whichever "world" it's in these days). How often do you hear about a trade issue involving us and Sweden? Or Switzerland? Or even France? It seems that the argument _for_ free trade is basically an argument about everyone getting the most for their money. One way of helping this along is to encourage specialization and division of labor among countries. Another way is by making the _natural_ resources of countries more generally available to other countries -- mediated through trade, of course. (Scotland has the perfect climate, soil, etc. for producing superior single-malt Scotch, for example. Cuba has the best tobacco-producing soil on earth. But we can grow oranges and make maple syrup. So by us buying their specialty products we are also buying a share in their natural resources, which we would be hard-pressed to duplicate ourselves. And vice-versa for them.)

But now some clues are starting to develop. If you have two countries with a comparable standard of living, _and_ a comparable cost of living -- since these are not necessarily correlated -- free trade between the two amounts to a win-win situation, since neither jobs nor goods will flow disproportionately from one to the other. This is not to say there would not be a need for occasional adjustments. An Italian watchmaker might have to go into the wine business, and the Swiss winemaker (assuming there even is such as thing) might have to start making watches. What this amounts to is increased efficiency, i.e. free trade allows each participant to do what they're best at, and leave the rest to someone else. And, of course, free trade is highly dependent on efficient transportation. If we can get wheat from North Dakota to the East Coast in one day, we don't need to have wheat farming in Vermont. On the other hand, we still need dairies just about everywhere, because milk simply doesn't lend itself to long-distance hauling. But there are no forces in place which will seriously threaten people's livelihood in the long run, or their standard of living.

On the other hand, let's say you have an "advanced" country dealing with a "primitive" country. If the goods and services are of such a type that they are not readily moved, the situation is still viable. The advanced country can supply higher-technology products in smaller amounts in exchange for low-tech products in large amounts. Think "banana republics" buying telephones, TVs, and cars from us in the 1950s. You can get a lot of bananas for one TV set. But it works out, and no one loses their job, and the respective standards of living remain stable.

The difference between that scenario and the one facing us today is that most of the goods and services in question can be made, or provided, from a wide range of "platforms". We don't have the logistical and climatic constraints we had formerly. In addition, people world-wide are acquiring specialized skill sets that would have been very difficult to achieve not that many years ago -- partly because of the Internet, and partly as a result of the level of trade (including that in education and technology) that already exists. So the process is self-amplifying. But even this is not the crucial factor. That, I believe, is simply the fact that, so far, the expectations of third-world people when it comes to standard of living are simply much lower than ours. In fact, one might even _define_ "third world" not only on the basis of standard of living, but of expectations. And, one might expect that, in the _very_ long run, third-world people will exert increasing pressure to become "first worlders", and demand higher wages, better living conditions, etc., which will, in turn, reduce the economic gap which is causing the "industry drain" and trade imbalances that have everyone so worried today. But that is in the long run, and the process could take a few generations to bear fruit. In the meantime, we might start looking a lot more like third-world people than they start looking like us.

Now, to get back to the "principle of the thing", the libertarian response to all this might be, well, too bad, we'll just have to stick to what we do best (which is... ??) ("cheesesteak" sandwiches come to mind) and let them do what they do best, and accept the economic consequences. If money always seeks its own level (which it does, if unconstrained), and wages are a product of supply and demand (which they are -- again, if unconstrained), then we may, indeed, find that equilibrium is not reached until the American worker has the same lifestyle as the Swedish worker who has the same lifestyle as the Bangladeshi worker. At that point, "free trade" will be a threat to no one. (And, no one will be able to afford to buy anything either.) Prices for goods and services would still vary based on logistical considerations, of course, but labor would cease to be a factor. In fact, prices would be based largely on the number of hands (of workers all receiving the same compensation) something had to go through between the source and the consumer. So, just like now, Caspian Sea caviar would be more expensive in New York than on the shore of the Caspian Sea -- but not because the caviar workers in Russia were making any less than the waiter in New York, just that the waiter is the end of a very long line of "processors".

So the libertarian response, while attractive in theory, or considerations of "fairness" on a global level, are not likely to satisfy the steelworker in Pittsburgh who would rather live with his family in his own 6-room house than live with the same family in the single room that the Indian steelworker in Calcutta can afford. (And let's not get distracted by "cost of living". Cost of living is nothing more than an intervening variable, or measure, between wages and _standard_ of living. I don't care whether a loaf of bread costs two dollars or one hundred rupees -- what I want to know is how long do I have to work to pay for it?) Besides, where is it written that what is "libertarian" in the domestic context has to extend world-wide? We say, subject the American economy, as much as possible, to the law of supply and demand. But does that require us to impose the same requirement on the world economy? And should an American citizen's "rights" vis-a-vis domestic exchanges be directly extended to the same "rights" vis-a-vis exchanges on the world market? If we can establish, for example, that the net effect of unresticted trade with any and all other countries is negative, when it comes to the aggregate standard of living of Americans, does our loyalty to supply and demand require us to ignore that fact and let the chips fall where they may? This seems to be the position of the government -- both the administation and Congress, and of course it's the position of the firms that are benefiting from the lowering of trade barriers. The unions, of course, have their own agenda, and it's interesting that they have been betrayed by -- as much as anybody -- the very same liberals who look to them for their most unswerving support at election time (and continue to get it! -- which is even more amazing).

I'm not even close to having any answers to these questions. I'm just trying to open up an area of discussion that can home in on these issues without losing sight of the broader concepts of economic freedom. There might be a point at which we have to say, well, it's time to relinquish a bit of dogma and absolutism in favor of the (gasp!) greater good. What point that would be, and what practical application it would have in the current situation, is to be determined. "Comments welcome."

I Will Follow You...

It's funny how you can tell how "scientific" -- or otherwise -- a given field of inquiry is by looking at the number of books, lecture series, tapes, videos, courses, consultants, theories, road shows, fads, crazes, rules, agencies, committees, task forces, etc., that are devoted to it. In short -- the more that is being spent trying to figure out how something works, and then explain it, the less "scientific" it actually is. The beauty of a field that is truly scientific is that, even if answers come along infrequently, they are real answers and they stay that way. A pseudo-scientific field, on the other hand, is replete with models, hypotheses, speculation, theories, and modes of inquiry -- but extremely short on answers. Now, the classic example of a pseudo-science, in my humble opinion, has to be economics, where -- to this day -- the worlds' experts will argue far into the night about the most basic principles. (Think of a group of physicists having a knock-down, drag-out fight about the validity of the periodic table, and you'll see what I mean.) But at least the economists are trying; some of them, at least. The most ineptly-named field of all, though, has to be "political science" -- a contradiction in terms that almost defines the term, "contradiction in terms". Politics -- which is all about greed, envy, and... well, let's just say all seven deadly sins rolled into one, with a few additional side dishes -- has to be far less scientific than poetry. If only it were as harmless (or as ignored)!

But aside from these classic examples of "serious fields of inquiry" that are mostly made up of fairy tales, we have some relatively new arrivals on the scene, without which -- I daresay -- the "Business" section of Barnes & Noble would be deserted, and thousands of government employees would have to find something else to do with their time (that is, assuming they don't have an actual job, which is a fairly safe assumption in most cases). And those are the fields of "Leadership" and "Management". Now, let's admit, at least, that these two subjects have a few advantages over Economics and Political Science. Generally speaking, we are allowed to judge the quality of leadership, and that of management, based on actual results. A good military leader, for example, is supposed to win battles while minimizing troop casualties and materiel losses. A good civilian (business, government, etc.) leader is supposed to accomplish the mission of his firm or agency in a passably efficient manner, while maintaining high morale, retention, etc. among his employees. Likewise, a good manager is supposed to seek out more advantageous and profitable ways of doing business, and to facilitate processes that enhance the operation of the organization, while phasing out procedures (and people, if possible) that do not. And these results are, if not entirely a matter of common sense, more than just "opinion". Most people can tell you the difference between successful and unsuccessful leadership, and ditto management -- and their criteria will be heavily weighted with objective results. In addition, it is not terribly difficult to "connect the dots" when it comes to analyzing _why_a given leader, or manager, achieved success. These things don't occur in a black box; they are, typically, out in the open for all to see (to the chagrin of the less-effective leaders and managers, of course). Now remember, we are talking about actual _success_ here. The issue of executive compensation, i.e. the leader's or manager's _own_ success, as measured by his income, is an entirely different matter, as we know only too well, from the sight of countless golden parachutes descending from firms that are about to crash. The roots of this particular form of insanity -- or corruption, or both -- could be analyzed, but I will defer that for a later time (if ever).

On the other hand, economic and political "theories" are seldom, if ever, judged on the basis of actual results. They are more likely to be assessed on the basis of intent, i.e. if we feel that the people who developed the theory and oversaw its implementation "meant well", then that is sufficient, no matter what catastrophes resulted. This way, the authors of the most destructive ideas, perhaps, of all time continue to get a pass -- Karl Marx being the first among them, but not forgetting Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao on the political side, and Keynes, among many, on the economic side, along with facilitators like FDR and LBJ.

So, that's what's "right" -- relatively speaking, at least -- about leadership and management as fields of inquiry. What's "wrong" about them is twofold. First, we haven't yet mentioned what may, in fact, be the most critical quality of good leaders or good managers. It's not intelligence, or subject-matter expertise, or "connections", or a "network", or experience per se. It's plain old charisma, AKA "leadership quality", and also social dominance. These are highly correlated, of course, but not synonymous. I challenge anybody to come up with an example of a truly effective leader -- even in government -- who did not have high social dominance, and at least a bit of charisma. But what, after all, _are_ those qualities, and how do they operate? How do they mix into the calculus of business, for example, in order to produce the desired results? And -- most mysterious of all -- how do people get that way (i.e., are they "made" or "born" leaders?), and if "made", then how? In short, is this something that can be taught -- and believe me, the government -- particularly the military -- and industry have been pondering this question for decades, if not centuries. So the first thing wrong with these fields is that they tend to ignore those least-scientific of all factors -- but those which have been associated with leadership since Odysseus' day -- charisma and social dominance. Remember that ad, "When E. F. Hutton talks, people listen"? The question is _why_ people listen, and it's not just about competence in managing mutual funds. It's something much more deeply-rooted in the human psyche, something more -- dare I say? -- primitive.

The question of how to "make" leaders, then, is the second thing that is "wrong" with the so-called "field" of leadership and mangement. The reason it's "wrong" is that everyone _assumes_ that, of course, leaders can be "made" -- they can be trained, and educated, and provided with appropriate experiences and "growth opportunities" and "developmental assignments" and sooner or later -- shazam! -- you have leader. Charming idea -- except it simply does not work. Oh yes, there are a few skills that can be trained or "enhanced" in people who are already on the upward track -- but all of that sort of training will never make a leader out of a non-leader. Besides which, a good leader can "hire" -- bring on board -- people who have just about any skill that he lacks. Team-building is a relatively simple affair (even George Bush can do it!) compared to making a person into something that he is not.

Thus, the endless aisles of "leadership" and "management" books at Barnes & Noble, and Borders, and on Amazon. Do you think any _real_ leader "types" ever waste their time reading those books? Hell no -- they are too busy leading. No, this vast field of literature is the equivalent of those "how to find the right girl (guy)" books -- they are for people with no natural talent who hold out some hope that just learning the right "technique" will save the day. (They'd be better off relying on plain dumb luck, in my opinion.) (And it would be cheaper.) The government -- and the military in particular, as I said -- spends billions a year on consultants, and courses, and workshops, and take-home materials, all designed to turn bullfrogs into hummingbirds. And of course the people who produce those courses and put on those workshops, etc., profit handsomely -- so don't try to tell me it's all "wasted". (NB: There is no such thing as "government waste". I'll deal with this point some other time.) But what it most assuredly does not do is produce leaders, or managers, who are much more effective than they would have been if they hadn't been harrassed by all those well-meaning "continuing education" geeks.

Now at this point, one might ask why we _need_ this emphasis on, and obsession with, "leadership" and "management", when most civilizations historically -- and many today -- seem to care not a whit. There are enough natural leaders in those societies to fill the important slots, and everyone else can just be a follower, as befits their natural talents (or lack thereof). Ah, but! We forget that America is a democracy -- not only in form but in the most radical sense, by which -- in theory (once again, regrettably) -- not only are all created equal, but all are entitled to "be the best they can be", which means -- for all but the most other-abled -- that they are entitled to be "leaders"! I challenge you (once again) to go into any school, or training center, in the land -- or, for that matter, many Protestant churches, social clubs, and welfare agencies -- and find one that is not offering, on a regular basis and for a nominal fee, "leadership training". I can walk into a place in a somewhat downtrodden part of any city in the country where young people are kept busy painting wooden blocks, and have that activity described to me as "leadership training". Our goal as a society seems to be to turn everyone into a leader, which means -- I guess -- eliminating not only all followers, but all follower-ship, i.e. the very _concept_ of following, which, of course, entails all the old-fashioned skills like understanding, obeying, and carrying out orders -- rare enough even in the military these days, and unheard of in civilian life. It also entails the recognition of, and recognition of the _value_ of, hierarchies -- from the most natural to the most arbitrary, since even the latter can contribute, at times, to the effectiveness of a group activity. You'll notice that all signs and manifestations, down to the most trivial symbols, of hierarchy, and order, and -- heaven forbid! -- merit, have been systematically expunged from our public schools in the last generation. It's true on playgrounds -- at summer camps -- everywhere there might be a threat of Person A being better than Person B at anything for any reason whatsoever. Which, I suppose, if you follow the logic, would make everyone into neither a leader _nor_ a follower, but just a "citizen" in what finally amounts to a state of anarchy, since no one has any claim of superiority -- even pro tempore -- over anyone else. This is, in fact, what communism and socialism attempted to do -- or at least that was the claim. But we're better than that; this is America! So, even though there are no followers left, it still makes sense for everyone to be a "leader". We now have anarchy of a different hue, and it is better for morale, you must admit. Problem is, not everyone is even _interested_ in being a leader. But for those who are, there is that aisle over at Barnes & Noble...

Who Moved My Donut?

On the occasion of coming off my Lenten diet, I looked forward -- with Homer Simpson-like eagerness -- to my first Monday morning donut in many weeks. And I did manage to score said highly-refined toxic extravagance, but -- oh, woe! -- it cost 5 cents more than it did just a month ago. It took me about ten seconds to figure out whose fault that was, namely the Bush administration and "ethanol mania" which has, for some reason I don't fully understand, not only caused the price of corn to go sky-high, but has created a price jump in other grain products as well. The primary result of this to date has, of course, been to further aggravate third-world poverty. For the poor agrarian peasant, access to cheap grain products is literally a matter of life and death, and has been for time immemorial. As poor as many of those countries are, they have managed to develop a kind of dietary stability that often involves pairing grain-based and legume-based foods. Then along we come with massive subsidies for corn and for ethanol production, and guess what -- these folks find out they are sitting on a gold mine, and that it's owned by their corrupt governments and/or by American corporations. Good-bye cheap corn, hello malnutrition. Now, of course, when one detects an "unanticipated consequence" of this magnitude it's not -- nor is it ever -- too late to reverse course in order to minimize the damages. But our Department of Agriculture, Congress, and the administration show no signs whatever of doing that. The ethanol cartel is triumphant, riding high, crushing the poor of the world underfoot, and no one cares, _because_ the people who _usually_ care about these things -- namely, the liberals -- have committed themselves entirely to the ethanol myth, and no amount of counter-evidence is going to change their minds. (Similarly, if it turned out that "global warming" was actually _good_ for a lot of heretofore-"underprivileged" peoples, would they change their tune on that? Not bloody likely.) So you can expect the ethanol juggernaut to roll on regardless of consequences... and my Monday morning donut to keep getting more expensive. What a world, what a world!